The Mightiest Heart



Book: The Mightiest Heart

Author: Lynn Cullen

Illustrator: Laurel Long

Publisher: Dial Books, 1998

ISBN-13: 978-0803722927

ISBN-10: 0803722923

Language level: 1

(1=nothing objectionable; 2=common euphemisms and/or childish slang terms; 3=some cursing and/or profanity; 4=a lot of cursing and/or profanity; 5=obscenity and/or vulgarity)

Recommended reading level: Ages 7-9

Rating: **** 4 stars

(5 stars=EXCELLENT; 4 stars=GOOD; 3 stars=FAIR; 2 stars=POOR; 1 star=VERY POOR; no stars=NOT RECOMMENDED)

Reviewed by Wayne S. Walker

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Cullen, Lynn.  The Mightiest Heart (Published in 1998 by Dial Books for Young Readers, a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., 375 Hudson St., New York City, NY  10014).  It is the late twelfth century A.D., and young Prince Llywelyn lives in a tall stone castle at Snowdonia, Wales.  He has a hawk for hunting, strong ponies to ride, and a loyal dog named Gelert.  Eventually the prince grows up, marries a princess named Joan, and has a son Dafydd.  One day, Llywelyn goes into the nursery to see his baby boy but finds blood in the empty cradle and also on the dog’s jaws. Jumping to the conclusion that Gelert had killed Dafydd, the prince draws his sword to strike the dog.  What really happened in the nursery?  Where is Dafydd?  And will Gelert live or die?  I decided that I wanted to read the legend of Gelert based on a poem entitled “The Reading Mother” by Strickland Gillilan beginning “I had a mother who read to me.”  The third stanza reads:

I had a Mother who read me tales

Of Gelert the hound of the hills of Wales,

True to his trust till his tragic death,

Faithfulness blent with his final breath.

My research found that Gelert was a legendary dog associated with the village of Beddgelert (whose name means “Gelert’s Grave”) in Gwynedd, north-west Wales.  In the legend, Llywelyn the Great returns from hunting to find his baby missing, the cradle overturned, and Gelert with a blood-smeared mouth. Believing the dog had savaged the child, Llywelyn draws his sword and kills Gelert. After the dog’s dying yelp Llywelyn hears the cries of the baby, unharmed under the cradle, along with a dead wolf which had attacked the child and been killed by Gelert. Llywelyn is overcome with remorse and buries the dog with great ceremony, but can still hear its dying yelp. After that day Llywelyn never smiles again.  This story formed the basis for several English poems, among which are “Beth Gêlert; or, the Grave of the Greyhound” by William Robert Spencer written around 1800; “Beth Gelert” by Richard Henry Horne; “Gelert” by Francis Orray Ticknor; and the dramatic poem “Llewellyn” by Walter Richard Cassels. The tale is also found in the poem “North Wales” by John Critchley Prince, Myths and Myth-makers by John Fiske, and Wild Wales (1862) by George Borrow.

Unfortunately, none of these works is available in our library system, but when I searched the system for “Gelert,” the first thing that came up was this children’s picture book.  The big difference, which I suppose is to sanitize the story for youngsters, is that in the book Gelert is not killed but runs away. Author Lynn Cullen provides a compelling plot in a period setting that will carry readers along.  While it is a tear jerker that will tug at the heart of animal lovers—those who love dogs should have a hanky ready, it is an appropriate, gentler, kid friendly version of the Gelert legend that highlights the loyalty and love of dogs for their people.  It is a little sad, but good, not depressing, and gripping without being too intense for younger children.  Illustrator Laurel Long crafts oil paintings with rich, deep colors that look like medieval tapestries. This book is recommended for anyone who loves either dogs, beautiful illustrations, or classic literature.  Despite the presence of a raised mound in the village called Gelert’s Grave, historians do not believe that Gelert ever existed.  But it is still a nice piece of folklore.  An author’s note addresses the question of truth in Welsh legends.

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